the circular runner

Posts Tagged ‘education’

a lesson for teachers: KEEP LEARNING NEW STUFF!!

In career, life, teaching & education, Uncategorized on December 1, 2012 at 7:33 am

I teach.

I am good at it.

Why?

Better question: Why am I putting in all these line breaks?

I’ll stop now.

I promise.

OK. Back to why I’m not so bad in the classroom.  I like it.  There’s that.  I guess I like helping others.  But I don’t like the sound of that because I don’t know if that really gets at it.  I’m just not that noble.  I’m ok with people–possible reason?  I’m not a social being, though.  I have a pretty high tolerance for solitude. At parties, I tend to get bored and want to read something.  I had a buddy in grad school who used to say that my social battery was limited.  I agree. But get me in the classroom, and I can go and go like the Energizer Bunny.  Why?

There’s a little theater to it, I guess.  I also really like trying to get my students to see that they can do things, which I guess is noble.  Please don’t tell.

Regardless of why after all these many years, I’ve become a decent teacher, the idea has lately crossed my mind that I do not want to keep at it if I’m doing so for the wrong reasons.  Or to put it simply, I don’t want to prove true that old, hack saying about teachers teaching because they CAN’T do other things.  That would make me lame and hypocritical, and if there’s one thing my savvy students pick up on is lame hypocrites.

I spend my days trying to get them to overcome their fear of learning new things.  Most of my students who don’t “like school,” are really “scared of school.”  They are scared because they know they don’t know how to do what I am asking them to do.  And not knowing is scary when you know you don’t know.

That sentence read like the bad philosophy I used to read in college–I need a line break to recover.

Back to teaching: over the years, as I have become comfortable in my position, I think I’ve forgotten how it feels to have to learn something new.  Because of the new stuff I am trying to learn in order to get the new site up and my writing career up and running, I have experienced the same anxiety when faced with not knowing that my students face when looking at an equation or a right triangle.  I know that have often wanted to run from learning how to place images in an HTML file; I have put off trying my hand at a film editing program because it just seemed too complicated. I have thought the following thoughts in rapid succession:

It just all seems so hard.

It’s too hard.

I can’t handle it.

I’m lame.

I’m dumb.

How many times have I heard these words coming from my students? How many times have I shushed them, smacked them in the head with a pencil (lovingly, of course) and reassured them?  Time for me to do the same thing for myself.  Not easy, I know.  Maybe learning requires bravery.  I need to be braver to be a better teacher.

OK.

Fine.

But can I say it?  Film editing programs are not very easy.

being in LA without driving…and liking it

In life, observations, writing on October 20, 2012 at 7:38 am

I’m going to the Story World Conference in LA, my hometown.  And I’m getting there by train.  That’s normal enough in most towns, but did I mention this is LA?

This morning, I’m riding on a commuter train that is basically empty, which is an odd experience.  I am used to the morning hustle of the East Coast, specifically the trains in New York, which can be strange social exercises in that there are no other places in which you can be that close to someone without it being sexual.  But here in LA, people don’t seem to like that kind of morning intimacy; hence, the ghost train.

I almost don’t want to say this, but as I’m moving forward through the metropolitan Los Angeles area, it’s a good thing that this town is Democratic leaning.  I could just see someone like Paul Ryan grimacing if he saw all the open seats around me.  Of course, the dismay wouldn’t just be coming from the Right.  I could see a bunch of Left-leaning types getting up in arms about the waste of energy this empty train represents, a sign of the times: we just can’t keep going on like this, we just can’t keep raping the Earth.

I will table these concerns for a moment.  I’m actually experimenting right now.  I want to see if I can visit LA and not drive on the freeways, not drive at all.  I’m taking up this challenge in response to Alissa Walker.  If you’re from LA and you don’t know her blog, GelatoBaby, get yourself there.  And if you aren’t from LA, I’d still tell you to get over there.  It’s a must because she loves LA, and she certainly does love LA because she tries to see it for herself without falling back on clichés and stereotypes.  LA, I really think, can often be misunderstood.

she loves her gelatto, her Los Angeles, and walking while enjoying both

For the purposes of this post, the issue that I am most interested in has to do with Ms. Walker’s need to walk.  She does not drive, even though she lives in the heart of Los Angeles.  She takes buses, trains, and true to to her name, she walks a lot.  She makes the claim that this is possible.  And I’m going to use these next few days to see if she’s right.

 

I’m a shy tonka truck looking for direction…

In career, life, observations, Uncategorized, writing on October 18, 2012 at 5:03 am

I know. The title of this post sounds like some lame attempt to be sensitive on Match.com.

But in reality, I’m getting ready to attend a conference for writers, multimedia-gurus and tech know-it-alls.  I’m staying with my folks, which is great for me, because it gives me the chance to say hey to my peeps while also getting the chance to do some networking.  I say this though the truth is that I’m not sure how the whole networking thing is going to go.  I can be kind of shy, but shyness can sometimes creep up on you.  It hides in the day to day of faces that, if not friendly, are at least familiar.  But once you break that pattern up a little bit, there she is, shyness is there, telling you not to say too much to strangers.

I am hopeful there will be a lot of people in attendance at this thing.  I’m kind of odd this way, but I’m not shy in large groups.  But that only goes so far since at some point, I will want to network with people, schmooze, press the flesh, etc..  That is kind of the point of this kind of event.

Or is it?

I’m making things up as I go.  There is a part of me that is unsure why I am going and what I hope to get.  The conference is for Transmedia storytellers, which, as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, is a term that can have as many meanings as there are weird technical people spewing it out.  But to put it at its simplest, Transmedia is for people who are trying to tell stories over a number of different media.  So you might have one main storyline told in book form, but then you have a spinoff-plot develop in a game or a character might have a Twitter feed and tweet to people who have bought the book or the game.  It gets a lot more complex and a lot more interesting, but at least this gives you an idea.

Regardless, what worries me is that I am changing things up again.  In previous posts, I made the mantra of 9 months and out, but this might just have been bravado masking insecurity.  I’m 40, almost 41.  Most people have their careers set by now, and what am I doing?  Jumping all about, trying things on, seeing where I fit.  Isn’t that what 20-somethings do?  Or 30-somethings—early 30-somethings?

As my 70 year old mom drove me to the train station this morning, I felt a little bit like a fool, like a man-child being dropped off to school.  Those same feelings of insecurity I felt so many years back: will the people I find like me?  Will they think me ridiculous?  Those same feelings are flooding me.  When I was a child, I knew I couldn’t stop time.  I knew I just had to suck it up and go to school, and more times than not, things turned out well.  I hope the same now, except that I know the stakes are a higher.  I don’t have to worry about a bully or a mean girl.  I need something to work out here regarding work.

I’m not looking for someone to give me a job or offer to buy something I’ve written.  I don’t need anything that big.  I’d be fine if I could just find the next step in this process of reinvention.  I think I have the energy for a big push.  I just need to know where to point myself.

Another memory comes to me as I write this.  When I was a kid, that shy, somewhat anxious kid, I used to love this yellow toy truck.  It was one of those toys that you’d have to rev up before letting it go screaming across the kitchen floor.  I am that yellow truck, all revved up, waiting patiently to go speeding somewhere—but where?  That’s the difference.  I’m a self-aware Tonka truck in need of career GPS.

cause it’s hard out here for a p…, i mean, reader

In career, life, media, Uncategorized, writers & books, writing on August 20, 2012 at 5:11 am

It’s a chilly night here in San Francisco, and I spent the evening catching up on some good old blogging-goodness.  Specifically, I came across a lovely post at Blood Ink Diary about books, owning them, reading them, not lending them–basically, loving them.  So if you love books, too,  I suggest you read the post.

As for me, I should’ve just enjoyed the prose and the message.  But I often do not do what I should do, and as I snuggled against my fleece blanket (I think San Francisco thinks it’s in the southern hemisphere), and read the post, I felt a shiver that was not caused by the fact that I live in a town that summer forgot.  Part shame, part remembrance of things lost would be the best way to describe what I was feeling.  The first because at some point as I’ve tried to write and write and get that writing out there, I’ve forgotten the power of great words, of slow-moving words for words’ sake.  It’s been months that I’ve read a book for joy.  A good half-year since I’ve read a long work of fiction.  Why?  It’s like I’ve become some kind of puritan who pooh-poohs the novel for its lack of “usefulness”.  Sure, my pilgrim brethren didn’t read books about branding and social media campaigns instead of reading fiction, but they dismissed the novel and the poem because they could not see the point to reading anything that didn’t build the soul–aka, scriptures.  Idle hands are bad enough, but an idle mind taking in words over the novel-version of the boob-tube, that was just too much.

It’s cliche, and I’ve already said a million times in this blog, but the Catch-22 of loving words enough that you actually want to string some along in new and weird ways for some imagined group of readers demands that you not do that creating very often.  It demands that you do a lot of selling, of yourself, of your concepts, and maybe, your body, which wouldn’t be bad except that I’m married–sorry ladies.

It’s an impossible situation.  That’s right, Joseph Heller, your little war book is nothing compared to the dilemma of the modern writer.  I was going to say that we writers trade our creative time for money so that we can write more words.  But the truth is that it’s not only the time; it’s also the head space.  To create, to dig the foundation of our imaginary worlds, one has to be kind of pure-minded.  You gotta be focused on the story, not on what that book might do for your wallet after it’s done.

I think that’s why the post I referred to above shamed me a little bit.  Its author is devoted to the words inside all those lovely books on her shelf.  She doesn’t care if they are useful or practical or if they fit the world and its ideas about utility.  A great book focuses the mind, and if you allow me a moment of operatic hyperbole, it focuses the soul.  The same is true of the writing process, of course.  And that’s what I have to remind myself of.  No matter what happens with career or my lack thereof, I cannot forget.  I cannot.

middle-aged and seeking a new line of work…AGAIN? REALLY?

In humor, life, observations on August 15, 2012 at 5:30 am

let’s see how long i can keep the smiles going

It’s late summer, and though I’m on “vacation” from teaching, I’m still at it.  My usual job is teaching GED classes out of community centers in the projects.  But I got hired to spend these same two weeks teaching academic workshops out of two of the hoitiest and toitiest prep schools in the Bay Area.  Since the money was good, I couldn’t turn down the work.

I don’t really feel like speaking about the obvious right now: the disconnect between the worlds I teach in.  In my usual world, I have kids who have seen more than anyone should, in this other strange one that I am visiting, I have kids who I think might benefit from seeing a bit more than just manicured lawns.  Ah, I know.  This is life and life can be unjust.  I won’t start preaching now because I’m tired and don’t want to come off as what I am: a west coast liberal.  (That said, next week, I’m going to be guest-blogging on one of Le Clown’s blogs, and since he’s Canadian, I will let out my lefty-ire there.  I’ll link here when that happens.)

For now, I will remark on the fact that it’s been almost two weeks since I started my vacation, and I’m not missing the old job–not one bit.  I’ve felt that before–when I worked a dumb office job.  People, I know, often don’t miss their jobs when they are on vacation.  But as a teacher, it’s not a good sign.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like I want to teach elsewhere.  I’m sure that someone who really wanted to teach would be ecstatic to work with the high-powered kids I have these two weeks.  They actually are motivated and don’t complain.  But I’ve never liked easy things, and as a teacher, even though my GED kids are hard and complain, I feel like I’m actually teaching when I’m working with them whereas I’m just tweaking when I work with the prep school crowd.  And still, I’m not looking forward to going back to GED next week.

Sadly, I think it’s time to shift paths.

To what?  I have some ideas.  I know it’s going to have a story-telling component.  Over the next few weeks/months, this blog will record this fool’s errand I will be putting myself on.  The economy is for shit.  I have a baby boy.  My wife is a baker (read happy but not well paid).  I have a job and should be glad for it.  But I’m not.  I need a different challenge.  Fool? Yes.  Probably.  No, definitely.  But then again, remember, I said I like challenges. Eeh gad!  I did say that, didn’t I?

my heart is hardening, a step by step guide to burn-out….

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on August 6, 2012 at 4:00 am

 

So here’s the scene and it’s not a pretty one.  I’m teaching a student the other night–a student who is schizophrenic, obese, homeless, and reeking of pot.  Though I would only use the word, loser, on myself. N. would probably make very few winner’s lists.  None of this matters to me.  My GED class is typically made up of students who vary widely, personally and academically.  N. is a special challenge.  I think her parents were or are profs. at Yale.  She is probably a genius; she can do Algebra and I bet she has an instinct for geometry, but she has these weird blocks when it comes to long division and fractions.  She gets how to do them, but she gets lost.  Partly, it’s the pot that she’s using to self-medicate herself with.  Partly, it’s the problem in her brain that makes her want to self-medicate.  I’m a pragmatist when it comes to teaching.  N. is an adult, and if she wants/needs to get high, I’m not going to scold her.  I usually just suggest that she “treat” herself after class.  She usually listens.

Like a lot of my students, attendance is not always consistent.  Again, I try to be pragmatic or am I being defeatist?  I wonder this when I encourage that at least they come once a week, or if not that, that they text me.  Usually, I find this works.  Make someone do something and rebellion is always the option.  Empower students by reminding them that they are adults and they always have a choice, and they usually come around.  Usually.

Now, do you sense it?  I’m putting it off. The description of my ugliness.  It’d been a couple weeks since N. had come to class.  No text.  Nothing.  And when she walked in, her voice way too loud for the small room, she asks if there are any snacks.  It’s not a bad question.  I usually do have snacks, but at that moment, I was annoyed by her.  I took it as another sign that this person is just not serious.  Maybe my face showed the disgust I was feeling, though I hope it didn’t.

N. eventually sits down and we begin, but not before I lay into her about her attendance and her not contacting me.  I tell her that especially with math, consistency is everything.  And then I tell her that she needs to reach out if she doesn’t show because I can’t keep teaching her the same thing.

Now, this isn’t really that ugly.  I’m saying something I’ve said to a lot of other students, but I know I’m being a little edgier than usual with N. because I’m annoyed–not with her, but with the job.  Earlier in the day, I had to deal with a young woman who is dyslexic and functionally illiterate; I had to eal with her mother, who yells at her daughter and distracts her when she’s trying to learn.  I had to deal with a co-worker who is half-angel and half-out-of-control raging asshole.  All of that’s ugliness, I think.  But with N. I try to focus on the fractions in front of us.  I try not to look at the clock, but everything in the room seems like it’s going too slow–N.’s mind, my empathy.  I want speed, though I don’t know where I’d go.

I’m thankful/saddened that at some point in the session, I see N.’s hands.  They are shaking.  She’s not doing well–worse than usual.  She’s hungry and she needs a cigarette.  So we stop math and she gives me her eating schedule, which is tied to food kitchens in town and Temple (she’s Jewish and goes to services for her soul and for the food.)

I’d like to say that this brought me back to a better place–that our talk made me realize I was being an ass, but the truth is that after I got her something to eat and a cheap (relatively speaking) pack of smokes, I got out of there.  To get home, I walk up a hill, and there was a part of me that felt like I was ascending a pit of despair and sadness.  Behind me was the hood; in front of me was my humble middle-class flat and my wife and baby boy.

Who am I to condescend to the people I try and teach or to their neighborhood?  I don’t know.  But for the first time since I started this job four years ago, I didn’t want to go back down the hill.  I wanted to stay in my flat and let the craziness and shit flow downhill.

I have no conclusion for this.  So, I’ll leave it at that.  Tomorrow’s another day.  Good night.

what my baby boy has taught me about writing discipline…

In humor, observations, parenting on July 30, 2012 at 6:25 am

this isn’t easy, but it’s necessary–at least mom says so…

If you are a parent, then you probably know what Tummy Time is. If not, it’s basically torture for babies–at least it is for mine.  Every morning, while my wife tries to catch up on her sleep, I hang out with The Boy and at some point, I put him on his play mat face down.  The baby development books all say this is good for little ones because it helps them develop the neck and arm strength they need for crawling. I know this. But still, if it were left to me, I wouldn’t do it to my kid.  I like hanging out with him as he plays on his back.  He smiles when he’s like that and he tells me the latest, greatest news from Babylandia.  But when turn him over, he becomes monster-baby–red and crying.  My wife insists that we do this.  And she’s right because The Boy is getting stronger and as a result, he’s hating Tummy Time less and less each day.

There’s a lesson here.  Actually, there’s a few. As a parent, I’ve learned that I’m going to be the softie, which I guess makes my wife the hardie.  This probably means that in the future, I’ll be the go-to parent, whereas my wife will be The Enforcer.  That said, I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t question my wife, but that’s a lesson I already knew even if I forget sometimes.

Apart from these family lessons, I think that Tummy Time also presents a lesson for writers.  How many times do we all start our writing sessions in pain?  I mean, we wake up ok, maybe smiling even, but then we get in front of the computer and it’s all sloppy sadness.  We might not yell, but on the inside, we want to.  We want to yell and scream and kick and maybe even slobber a little.  Why?  Because writing is hard–just like Tummy Time.  And yet, and yet, it’s only in the doing that the difficulty abates.  Our creativity muscles grow because we are flexing them every time we put words to the page/screen, and we need to try to do this regularly.

Look, it’s not easy. But you don’t want to be a baby.  Even my son, who is a baby, would tell you that if he could.  So, if you’re reading this post instead of writing your stuff, I want to thank you, but I also want to scold you.  Go forth and do your writer’s Tummy Time.  It’s good for you.  And if you don’t, I’ll tell my wife to pay you a visit.  She’s tough, so don’t mess.

i’m a loser, i’m a genius, i’m a loser: a writer’s dilemma

In criticism, humor, observations, Uncategorized on July 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

It’s a sign of age that things are not one extreme or the other. When I was younger, if I failed at something,  I would almost certainly tell people I sucked.  I didn’t mean, I suck at this or that.  I was trying to make more of an existential statement, as in I am a person who just lives in a state of sucking, i.e., a loser.

I was never so confident or clueless to say I was a genius when something went my way.  But I’ll admit that somewhere in the back of my head, I was hopeful I might find that thing I was amazing at. If I’m really honest, I’d add that I wanted to find something I was amazing at without having to put in bone-crushing effort needed to make amazingness.  Of course, even geniuses put in effort–I’m assuming this though I cannot say for sure since, if you haven’t figured it out on your own, I am no genius.  (I know. Big surprise.)

I bring all of this up because a couple weeks ago, I experienced a pretty big failure and a nice success back to back.  The first was a screening of my second short film (the trailer appears above).  The screening happened here in SF at a big theater as part of a festival that happens out here regularly.  As part of the festival, after the screening of each movie is over, the crew and cast go down in front and take questions.  Often the questions are pretty slight, i.e., why did you you use that logo for your production company; do you think you’ll make a sequel to that romantic comedy with the happy ending that couldn’t possibly go anywhere else because it is a short with a happy ending; I love chocolate, and the main character was eating some in that one scene, what kind of chocolate?  You get the point.

But when Cherise, my strange little Cinderella story in reverse, was done, it was like ghost town silence.  We went up and looked out into the vast audience (over 600 people) and you could feel the rampant indifference. What I would’ve given for a question about chocolate?

On later reflection and because my director reminded me of this, I realized that we made the movie we set out to make.  We wanted to make something that was lovely to look at.  We wanted to tell a story with dance and music and through minimal dialogue. We wanted a visual experience more than we cared about story.  Well, we hit those marks.  But still, there was a part of me sitting in that theater harkening back to my younger days, the younger me that often told himself, Jesus, dude, you suck the big one.

A day later, I had a reading. It was the first time I’ve ever been asked to be a featured reader, and I was excited.  But there was also a part of me that was fearful.  Would I suck at this, too?  Would the crowd, mostly poets, look at me and my little fables/fairy tales/ urban micro fiction about old ladies popping happy pills and would they reject what they saw? Would they get all aggro the way poets at spoken word events often do?  What is the opposite of snapping fingers and saying, groovy, man? As it happens, they did not hate me.  In fact, they were very enthusiastic. Some people might have even  snapped some fingers.  And for a moment or two that night, I felt like like I had arrived. I was a writer.

I’m no genius. That thought never crossed my mind even with the snapping, but I’m ok with that. The violins will never soar as I write the great American Novel. I’m no Mozart.  I’m not even Salieri. But with practice, I hope I write something that gets close to great. That’s a realistic goal–I hope it is.

As for the sucking part, the truth is I know I don’t suck, either–not in existential way.  But ironically, that’s almost more disappointing than not being a genius.  If you tell people you suck and you believe it, there’s always a way up.  There’s always room for improvement. And more importantly, if you fail at what you’re attempting, you can wrap yourself in the Sucky Blanket of Low Expectations.

You think I sucked that night?  You think my movie was shite?  Well, of course my dear man/woman, I suck.  I suck the big one.

NO MORE!  It’s time to grow the hell up. I’m just too old to be carrying the Sucky Blanket around. I need to work and not worry. I might die with nothing to my artistic record, but I’m not going down sucking, goddammit.

 

the Batman shootings: evil, revenge, and me

In life, observations, teaching & education on July 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I don’t usually post on Fridays, but I just saw some footage from the Colorado shooting, and I wanted to write something. I needed to.

I will admit that about the same time James Holmes decided to enter a theater in Colorado guns a’blazing, I was watching a Korean revenge film about  sociopath and about a cop who decides to break all the rules in order to seek revenge.  Usually, revenge movies are a guilty pleasure for me, and Asian revenge movies are so over the top that I wouldn’t ever say I am moved by them intellectually.  But this Korean movie, called, I Saw the Devil, was different.  It was over the top and sometimes, the characterization of the sociopath was akin to those old silent movies when the villain wears black and twists his mustache, but the thing that kind of made me stick with the movie was that it focused less on the criminal than it did on the police officer.  If I had to summarize the movie, I’d say it was a look at the fact that there is no solution for evil, or if you prefer, against a person completely devoid of morality.

Ironically, this movie reminded me of The Dark Knight, which also dealt with the same notion.  Heath Ledger as the Joker, you say what you will about his acting, but that character is truly horrifying–not because of what he does, but because he feels nothing about what he does.  You can imagine that the Joker would give as much thought to breathing as he would to brutally killing a person except that brutally killing someone probably gave him some pleasure–but then again, maybe not.

There’s a scene in The Dark Knight when the Joker talks to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and lays out his thoughts on violence.  Watch this scene and tell me if this isn’t scary.

It’s scary because there is no ideology, no firm ground to share. There is only randomness, violence. It makes me shiver, and yet as a movie-goer, I’m drawn to it because there is something awesome about it–awesome in the Biblical sense of the word.  Awesome in the sense of being awestruck with horror because there is nothing one can do to fix this kind of person.  Revenge is not a prudent motivating force, but part of the reason we like revenge movies is that they restore order to the world–at least they attempt to.  They give us a sense of justice.  But the randomness of the Joker, the randomness of this shooter in Colorado, is just that, randomness.  And revenge does not bring about justice.  The immoral person does not feel, cannot feel, guilt, which is kind of the point of seeking out justice, isn’t it?  That’s the lesson of The Dark Knight and I Saw the Devil.

And yet, the answer is not apathy.

Earlier this week, right outside the projects in which I teach my GED classes, there was a drive-by shooting.

this does not look like the site of evil, does it?

No one was hit, though there were dozens of children at the playground across the street and young couples with their dogs were there, too.  The shooters, no doubt, are not evil, even if what they were doing could be called that.  They were not being random.  They were going after a kid for some reason no one knows exactly.  The only reason I bring this event up, apart from the fact that I have not really talked to anyone about it, is that the responses of my young students was almost all the same: indifference. The shooting, the bullets and all the harm those bullets can do, has been internalized by the young people I work with, and they don’t see much point in getting upset by it.  I don’t think my kids are evil for their apathy.  But I do think it shows that they have been harmed by the evil I’m describing.  They do not feel.  They don’t imagine that there are places where random violence is not a daily thing to witness.  Or maybe they do, but they don’t see themselves living in those places.

And maybe they have no reason to. I’m not sure I believe in the devil, at least not as certain religious people like to describe him, but if he did exist, last night, a little bit of hell was visited upon the town of Aurora, Colorado and those people in that theater saw a glimpse of the devil for themselves.

is writing fantastical fiction only for the rich (and white)?

In humor, life, observations, politics, teaching & education, writers & books, writing on February 19, 2012 at 11:26 am

Joe Ponepinto recently wrote a post where he asked if writing</a was becoming something that only people of means did. I highly recommend that post, so much so, that I'm giving you an out. Here's the link to his blog.

If you’re still with me, then I would like to take a slightly different tack on Joe’s question. I want to know if the kind of writing I like to do, something that some might call speculative or fantastical or magical realism, is just for white, rich people. If you’re confused about the labels I’m using, think Twilight Zone. If you’re getting pissy about my question, read on.

The reason I’m asking connects with Joe’s concerns. He wondered if a person struggling financially could afford the time and money involved in trying to break in as a writer. And if not, he feels that there will be lost voices, lost experiences, because the only people who will break through will all be too similar. I agree with that. But let’s say that struggling writer is a person of color, and let’s say that struggling writer somehow finds a way to keep producing, what then? Should she write fantastical stories or should she focus on stories about her upbringing in order to bring attention to questions of social justice?

Before I answer that question for myself, let me tell you where this question comes from. I grew up poor. I spend my non-writing professional life in the projects teaching young men and women how to pass their GED. I love them and think of them as family, but I never tell them what I do when I am not teaching them. I am just Gabe or for some who really can’t bother to remember, I am “teacher.” I have no idea what my students think of me. I’m sure most of them don’t think of me at all, but if they do, they probably think I liked math since math is what I usually focus on with them. Last year, in order to make money for the program, I ran a couple performances to raise funds for materials and whatnot, and I invited poets and writers to come out and read–an evening of poetry and music for at-risk youth–I hate the term, but it gets butts in seats. The event was successful. I found a lot of talented artists. The writers, especially, were amazing and generous. A lot of them worked with the “community.” Many of them were social workers or case managers or had taught writing in prisons. Their writing, for the most part, spoke to what it was like to be black or Latino or Asian. Race and culture, culture and race, and for a few, class was also thrown in since if you’re going to talk about inequality, class is a natural tie-in.

I do not know why race and class don’t enter into my own work. I’m interested in culture, but when I write, culture is not necessarily politicized as I feel it is with a lot of writers of color. I’ve thought about this a lot lately. I’ve wondered why it is that I don’t write as maybe I “should”, considering my upbringing. I also wonder why it is that I think I SHOULD write anything. Artists don’t usually deal with questions of duty. But there is a part of me that does–it’s the part of me that grew up poor, I think.

Listening to the poets read their work last fall, I almost felt guilty. Here, these people were edifying the young people in the audience; through words and stories, they were being role-models. Of course, there was some posturing, some overly enunciated Spanish words peppered into their work for effect, some hip-hopped rhythm in their delivery that the material didn’t always require, but on the other hand, they were sharing stuff that mattered to the young people in the audience–to my students.

As the organizer of the event, I had an out. I didn’t need to share my stuff, but even if I wasn’t hosting, the truth is I wouldn’t have felt comfortable sharing my stories about young women growing flowers in their stomachs or bears and pigs rowing after Noah’s ark (two recent stories I like). I love the kinds of stories I tell, don’t get me wrong. As a writer, I am proud of the surreal and lyrical tradition of writers like Borges, Rushdie and Etgar Keret, etc.. But surrounded by my own, by my GED kids and by my community-serving colleagues, I pull back and hide that part of myself.

There’s fear and insecurity, I know. And I’m probably giving short shrift to some of my kids who might appreciate the kind of fairy tale/fables I create, but I’m scared that someone might come up to me after I read and ask me the question I’m asking all of you: do Latinos (or any minority) write that kind of shit? Isn’t that white-people stuff?

To bring it back around to Joe’s concern that money is a barrier to hearing different voices, you can see I might be a victim of the problem he brings up. The artists of color who make it often write about being marginalized, about living on the hyphen, etc. There are exceptions, but it’s not always easy to find them. And really, when I read, I don’t want to pick up a book just because the writer’s name ends with -EZ or because her picture shows that she’s X.

And yet…and yet even if you believe that stories are important, as I do, you still might not see how a story about a man who makes women itch when he falls in love with them (another story of mine) is doing anyone any good. Who is that story for? What is its purpose? If you are struggling to keep your kids fed and warm or safe from a bullet, can you be fantastical? Can you afford to stop and listen to a story of any sort? And if you can, don’t you want to hear a story about someone living through something similar? Does the poor person tell her child fairy tales, or does she fight to teach her child what’s up, as my mother taught me?

Somehow, in my case, the lesson didn’t stick. Or maybe it did. Maybe she taught me to be who I am regardless of what others think. As a storyteller and as a person, I do think there’s more to this world than meets the eye. Take that where you will. I believe in mystery, you can call it magic,–and I’d like to think that that mystery can exist even in dilapidated old buildings and fairy tales can edify in their own way. That’s what I think when I’m being strong and confident, which obviously is not always the cas

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